Rome -Municipio Vlll
He’s in a basement somewhere in the outskirts of Rome, that much he’s sure. The private jet had landed in Rome’s Ciampino Giovan Battista Airport and he was unceremoniously smuggled out with the luggage. If it weren’t for the fact they needed him alive, Bond suspected that they might have just buried him in it somewhere.
The drive was a short one so it stands to assume they weren’t that far from the airport. It’s been two days since his arrival in this place. Sciarra had made a show upon his arrival, making sure to let his displeasure be known in the form of strikes across the face and punches to the stomach - not enough to seriously injure but portending what is to come once Alistair finds a workaround to the Smart Contract hack that Q made.
Speaking of whom, Sciarra’s reaction was more passionate than Alistair’s who once the trade was made, hardly gave him any attention in the four days it took to sail from Seoul to Hong Kong. His disdain for him was clear, he didn’t think Bond was worth much of his time - yet Alistair couldn’t resist twisting the knife a little deeper.
On his superyacht World is Not Enough; on the way to Hong Kong before packing him on a flight to Rome, he’d taken Bond on a brief tour through the ultra-luxurious amenities - the project room filled with electronics and tools, the kitchen stocked with fancy tins of teas and finally ending in the enormous bedroom near the top floor. A stack of new electronics still in their boxes sat on the console under the massive television. On the bed was laid out two sets of sleepwear, one on either side. But only one side had a luxuriously fluffy robe - the kind Q still favours.
Alistair runs his fingers over the robe, stroking it gently. “Benji had always been so good, so brilliant. Until MI6 got their hands on him. And for what? They bury him in the basement, making silly toys for the likes of you. I could have given him all of this,” Alistair makes a half-turn, arms outstretched.
He comes close to face Bond, “And you? Who are you? Disposable brawn and muscle. You don’t deserve him.”
At the risk of pissing off a delusional madman, “Have you asked him what he wants?”
Alistair huffs in annoyance, “Benji would have loved this.”
“That’s not what he told me.”
Grimace. Bond was testing his patience. “Is that what your Quartermaster said?” he spits. “You and your MI6 turned him into this unrecognisable elfin always nattering on about protocol and procedures. You cut his wings, chained him to a desk. When he is capable of so… so much more.”
“All it took was a little pressure and he handed over the Shadow Network to GCHQ, broadcast its internal workings to a roomful of NATO engineers. Unwittingly handing out the plans for a cyber nuclear weapon to every nation in the misguided attempt to ‘even out the playing field’. Can’t you see what this will cause? What a myopic view of his creation. Benji would have known what to do with it.”
Alistair stares out the glass windows into the darkness outside, “The world could have been ours.”
Another megalomaniac, one who’s in love with a person that no longer exists, if ever. The extent of Alistair’s delusion is clear to him now.
“Benji is still there. I’ve seen it, touched it, tasted it…” Alistair says determinedly.
Something about the way he says it has Bond’s hackles up instinctively. Alistair notices the shift in Bond’s demeanour. He smiles, triumphant.
“Take him out of MI6, remove him from your corrupting influence - Benji is perfect.”
“So perfect you needed to slip him prednisone to keep him compliant?” Bond interjects casually. Oh yes, we found out about that.
Alistair’s face falls, “When you’re gone, I’ll have him again.”
Bond begs to differ, “I suspect with or without me, that will be a difficult proposition. He has a mind of his own when it comes to which side he fights for.”
It’s been a week since that awful night. He’s been left to stew in his windowless cellar situated at the bottom of an unoccupied shop somewhere in a commercial district, from the sounds of it. It has facilities and a pallet to sleep on. Why here, Bond can only guess. Perhaps Sciarra owns the block or knows the people that do, and the bustle from the busy streets will drown out any of his shouts in the morning and is deserted in the evenings.
They’ve fed him, even given him a paper to read (albeit Italian) to stave off boredom. And they check in on him constantly - less to do with his escaping than making sure he doesn’t harm himself; suicide watch - not for altruistic reasons mind you, but tome sure he doesn’t throw a wrench into the network.
“Tell me he’s still alive,” he asks his only companion as he stares at the ceiling. Herbie the spy robot is his only link to HQ. He’d been resisting asking because he’s afraid of the answer, what he’d do if it was one he doesn’t want to hear. -And if he isn’t… lie to me- is the unspoken plea in the question.
His plans are contingent on the answer. He recalls the feel of Q’s blood seeping out of the wound, warm and slick, coating his hands, too much, too quick. The devastating memory of Q clutching desperately at him not to go - the emotional gut punch is more painful than any physical one Sciarra’s henchmen can dish out. It knocks the wind out of him. He has to roll over quickly to get up and start pacing before the tears threaten to overwhelm him.
His brain unhelpfully supplies him with the last happy memory they shared. The morning of the kidnapping - when they were still buoyant from the successful mission in New Mexico. He’d made a quip about Q’s ring size during the mission over the comms - a little teaser meant to fluster the Quartermaster. But Q had parried it so well, reminding him of the very reason he’d fallen for him in the first place.
That morning after his return, while Q was absently eating his breakfast and making pleased noises as he checked the progress of the Shadow AI creeping into $PECTRE’s network, he’d nearly presented Q with the ring. They weren’t one for mawkishness, indeed they hardly referred to their relationship directly at all - no anniversaries or big showy displays of affection (unless of course when it’s done under some other pretence). But that mundane morning, waking up together, getting ready together and eating breakfast together; he genuinely couldn’t imagine his life being anymore complete than it was. It brought on an insipidness that nearly made him retrieve the ring from its hiding place and get down on one knee.
He could not have imagined that not five hours later he would be staring at the retreating form of the assailants’ helicopter, powerless to protect the person he valued most in the world. The haunting spectre of Vesper comes to mind; but she’d betrayed Queen and country for love - Q had gambled himself to protect everyone.
Bond slumps against a wall in the cellar, chest tight gripped by an unseen force. He’d dreaded this moment. When the action whittled down to nothing and he’s left alone to process his thoughts. What if Q was gone already? Bled out before Marcus could even get him to a hospital? Or slipped away on the operating table? Their last affectionate moment together would have been that fateful morning at breakfast.
Herbie buzzes back in Morse code after agonising minutes. ::Y.E.S:: Is the short reply, nothing else after that. He can’t tell if it’s the truth or if they’re lying. Or if Q is in such bad shape that the answer is only technically the truth.
Bond slides down the wall and shuts his eyes, clinging to that glimmer of hope.
SIS Building - Operations Room
The mood in the operations room is sombre even after a week. Word of the dramatic hostage exchange went around quickly. It was heart-wrenching to hear about and even more traumatising to have to listen to it live like how some of them did.
R, Nish and Jamila are trying their best to keep Q-Branch together and chugging along despite the loss of their charismatic Quartermaster. Jamila is healing well from the assault in Tintagel, but may need a hearing aid in the future.
As for Mark, he’s feeling the full weight of responsibility rest of his shoulders. Without Q, he is the next person everyone turns to when it comes to MI6’s cybersecurity. Nish is supporting him as much as he can, but even with their combined efforts, they acknowledge that they don’t know as much about the inner workings of the Shadow AI as they ought to.
Thankfully the AI is at a stage where its neural network is self-sustaining in a sense; requiring very little input from its human masters to learn - only needing to be told what its objectives were. Mark is aware that he’s only a caretaker of this ‘entity’ as most of the boffins now see the AI. A tolerated zookeeper in the absence of the favourite; to a potentially dangerous monster.
“Sir, something is happening to the Network,” one of his IT minions brings it up to him.
Mark peeps up from his station to regard the other boffin with raised eyebrows. The woman points out the logs on the main screen. Soundless warnings scroll down the screen at an alarming speed - each denoting a breach attempt. Someone is attempting to brute force into their network, so far to no avail. Each time the Shadow Network successfully shunts it off. Nothing unusual, MI6 is attacked daily from the outside and the hackers range from state-sponsored programs to individual curious teenagers - but Mark’s never seen the logs go this fast.
“How long has this been going on?” he asks concerned. Please not now… this is the last thing he needs.
“It looks like it might have started a few days ago. But as of today, the frequency jumped significantly.”
“Do we know where it’s coming from? Is it a State or individual attack?”
“No, they’re behind a VPN. And the attack signatures don’t match any known hacker groups or state.”
“Still can’t rule it out… What is it looking for?”
“I’m not sure. It appears to be trying… everything,” she makes a waving gesture with her hands to emphasise her words.
Mark scans the warnings, ”The frequency and variation of attack, there’s no pattern, it’s too rapid. A mutating program?…” he wonders out loud. Something about this looks familiar, “… Or another AI?” is the chilling realisation.
Before he can discuss it further with her, Josh from Q-branch calls out to him.
“Sir! 007 found something in his cell.”
Rome - Municipio Vlll
He paces, cold and bored out of his mind. The cellar is drafty at night, and the air that seeps in smells musty. The thin blanket they’ve given him doesn’t do much so he has to stay active to keep warm. Annoyed, Bond investigates the draft hoping to plug it or move out of its’s way. Its not from the door, that was the first place he looked.
Bond had felt every square inch of the cellar walls, all solid. But the air must be coming from somewhere. He paces the room.
He moves the stack of pallets and mattress he’s been sleeping on aside. Nothing remarkable, except that the tiles and a section of the wall around the area are already cracking from subsidence. When his boots scuff the floor, he notices the tiles sound hollow. He hovers a hand around the area, there is cold air seeping through - interesting.
A quick test and he roughly identifies the size and position of the hollow area sitting under the wall and extends a few feet out under his feet. He uses the wooden pallets to break the tiles further, exposing a small fist-sized aperture. The meagre light in the cellar doesn’t allow him to see into the dark hole.
If only he had a match or a lighter or a…. Herbie. Bond picks up the little robot and sets it down next to the void.
“You, get in there,” he commands the robot. Herbie is already peering down into the void with seeming trepidation. He knows these robots are part of the Shadow AI with its higher commands (objectives and goals) controlled by humans in HQ, but he can’t help reading sentience in the way they move.
Spy Herbie buzzes back, two front legs waving in the air. ::Help. Gently::
Bond picks up the robot, places it in his hand and lowers it into the gap like an elevator. He feels Herbie turn around orienting itself and assessing that the environment is safe, spider legs tickling his palm. Then suddenly it jumps off. There are faint scratching noises as it scampers away scanning the area with its LiDAR.
SIS Building - Operations Room
They have an approximation of 007’s location via WIFI positioning system form Herbie’s signal and Smart Blood chips. Mark works with Josh to superimpose his location on top of existing maps of catacombs in the area. In a felicitous twist of events, it shows that 007 is just 50m from an active archaeological dig. The tunnel must be a yet undiscovered section of the catacombs linked to the Catacombs of Domitilla the nearest known network.
Herbie’s LiDar makes quick work of assessing the size of the passage and possible routes out to the main tunnels.
“ETA on the plane in Rome?”
“Excellent. Tell Eve to ready the Predators.”
Rome - Municipio Vlll
It’s almost dusk the next day by his estimation when Spy Herbie buzzes him from his nap - telling him to move the pallet and mattress away from the hole he’d made the night before. Bond does as he is told and waits patiently.
From inside the hole, comes the sounds of methodical scratching, growing louder until out of the dark void emerges spindly curved legs. The metal legs clink on the tiles, almost sinister in its slow deliberation. The legs pull with it a sleek gunmetal grey metallic body - Predator Herbie. The size of a dinner plate when folded, it has a much larger payload than Spy Herbie, and most importantly is equipped with weapons capabilities. Better still, not one but two of them emerge from the void.
The whole network of Herbies and disposable swarm robots are linked to Q’s Shadow Network - it is essentially a physical extension of the AI. A super-organism all linked together, to borrow biological metaphors. The different permutations of Herbies are fundamentally the same entity, sharing the same neural network. So when anyone interacts with any of the Herbie’s, they are essentially interacting with the AI.
Someone theorised that this was one of the reasons that the Shadow AI progressed so rapidly and understands context so efficiently. The AI was not confined to the abstract cyber world but allowed to roam the physical world - learning exponentially from it.
Bond swears by his observation that the Herbies have taken on the mannerisms of Q’s cats. Q has brought home a version of Lab Herbie on many occasions and it spends an inordinate amount of time as their playmate and Bond is positive that has influenced the AI’s deep learning algorithms.
Predator-1 opens a small storage hatch and presents 007 with an earwig. Duct taped to its back is a plastic baggie, inside is a pair of goggles and disposable filter mask - a short bark of laughter escapes him. The incongruousness of it all, the extreme high tech merged with classic low tech. Predator-2 does the same, it’s carrying a tied up length of plastic explosives. Bond removes the explosives and Spy Herbie hops into the vacated space, no longer needed now that its larger cousins are here.
Earwig in, Bond is ready for action, “007 here, do you read me?”
The answering voice stuns him for a moment. “Yes. It’s about to get dark outside. Are you ready?” The smooth confident voice on the other end is not one he was expecting to hear. It can’t be… he can’t be out of the hospital so soon.
“Q?” he says cautiously, tempering his elation at hearing the familiar voice. “Shouldn’t you still be in recovery?”
“I should… but we don’t all listen to orders do we?”
Touché. Evidently Q’s still mad at him.
“Get me out of here and I’ll make it up to you.” He really meant it. Nothing salacious, he would gladly spend the next decade grovelling if it meant he could be near him again.
“See that you do. Shall we?” the characteristic determination is evident, even if the voice is tight and weaker than usual.
They both slip into their mission personas - like perfectly fitted gloves, a well-practised dance.
Bond sticks a length of the explosive around the perimeter of the hole. Predator-1 ejects one of the tiny expendable swarm-bots and he sticks it to the cord, it will function as the trigger.
A quick countdown with 007 hiding behind a tipped-over table and a minor explosion ensue. When he emerges, there is a fine mist of dust hanging in the air - good thing for the mask and goggles. The hole in the ground is much larger now, big enough for him to drop through.
None too soon, as the explosion draws the attention of his captors, who can be heard thundering down the stairs. Bond drops himself through the hole just in time as the first of Sciarra’s men burst through the cellar door.
The last thing he sees before the darkness swallows him is Predator-2 leaping off the ground to clamp its long titanium tipped, curved legs around the chest of the lead man through. The strong thin legs are perfect for slipping between the ribs, puncturing lungs with the ease of a needle through a grape. He’d seen the prototype tests of those things in action - it could eviscerate a man with frightening ease.
Inside the tunnel now, he takes a few seconds to adjust, the centuries-old unexcavated catacomb is partially collapsed, filled with dust, stone, and old bones. Again thank goodness for the PPE. The goggles he’d been given are no ordinary PPE though, it has night-vision built into it.
“It’s 50 meters to the archaeological site, the tunnel should clear up there.”
Without any light inside the tunnel, the night vision goggles would be useless; there is no light for the sensors to intensify. Ah, but Predator-1 is lighting the way with near-infrared light (NIR), not visible to the human eye but enough for the sensors in the goggles to amplify. Q thinks of everything!
As Predator-1 leads, scampering over debris with ease; behind him, Bond hears the scratch of Predator-2 descending into the tunnel after having dispatched his early pursuers and taking up the rear.
It’s not a straight route, the catacomb has a number of sharp turns and offshoots, but Predator-1 soldiers on without hesitation. 007 does his best to keep up. Bond says a silent apology to whosever bones his boots are crunching on. He’s committing archaeological sacrilege, there is a distinct possibility that he might be trodding on the bones of yet to be documented saints, martyrs and noblemen.
-Well, no time to think about that now- He tells himself as he braces a hand on what he thought was stone but turns out to be a skull - to climb over a hurdle blocking his path.
There’s rough hacking coughs and voices a distance behind him as Sciarra’s men attempt to follow him. Then spooked shouts, as they realise what the tunnels are.
Up ahead, there’s literal light at the end of the tunnel, albeit very faint. The caved-in passage is blocked, but there is an opening no bigger than two feet wide and a foot high. Barely enough for a man to crawl through on his stomach. It’s a very tight fit.
He emerges into more catacombs, this one cleaner in that it has been excavated. Bond sticks the remaining cord of explosives to the underside of the crawlspace and detonates it. It causes a minor cave-in, blocking off access.
Bond looks left and right of him, the tunnel is identical either way. He gives Predator-1 a look that conveys -You better know where we’re going-.
“If you’re out of the tunnel, you should be in one of the main passageways running east. The passage should slope, take the incline,” the voice over the comms tell him. He does as he’s told. Soon the passage cleans up even more, he follows along until he sees signs that the living frequents the place - electrical wiring connected to lighting fixtures. Then he hears the faint echoes of singing.
When he emerges, it is to the underground basilica attached to the Catacombs of Domitilla, a sunken church open to tourists. The place should be closed for the day, but there is a private service underway. Bond brushes off the dust of the catacombs from his clothes the best he can. A workman’s toolbox and a plastic pail filled with wood offcuts lie under the wooden stairs leading up to the church. He quickly empties the pail, hiding the Predators inside and picks up both the pail and toolbox.
That does the trick. No one pays him more than a passing glance and asks no questions about his state of dress (hopelessly dusty and stained jeans and shirt provided by Sciarra’s men) as he makes his apologetic way to the exit.
Once outside, he discards the toolbox and sets the pail down. Predator-2 curves two legs over the rim and peers out to scan around. Bond thinks he might be going mad or suffering from homesickness, but the move is so reminiscent of Spot peering over the dining table at forbidden human food.
“Head south-east… your left. In about 300 metres and you’ll see the gates to the Catacombs of St Callixtus. Make your way in and cross straight across to Via Appia Antica,” Q’s smooth soothing voice instructs.
Q has a voice made for satnav. What he’d give to have it as an option in his DB10 or his phone. Bond must be still delirious from relief because he actually tells Q this.
“Thank you for your input 007. I’ll keep that in mind during the next OS update.”
Bond smiles to no one, happy to have some of their banter back. “Can the predators make the way on their own?” He checks with Q. He really must be losing his marbles. Why does he even care if the robots can keep up?
Q tells him that they’ll be fine; so Bond does as instructed, a brisk walk 300 down the road and the gates to St Callixtus comes into view on higher ground. The grounds are surrounded by a medium height stone wall and a metal gate. Nothing that can keep 007 out. He scales the wall with ease and drops down the other side. The Predators slip easily through the decorative bars of the iron gates.
In the distance, the thundering sounds of V-Twin engines echo in the quiet evening - Sciarra’s men. The locals would know that the tunnels should logically connect to the major network of catacombs the area is famous for and are undoubtedly on their way to check.
Crossing the grounds of St Callixtus was uneventful. On the other side, now on Via Appia Antica, he makes his way quickly southbound along the narrow ancient street. High stone walls on flanking him on either side make him nervous - he’s penned in.
“There is transportation waiting for you 100 meters away, at the entrance to Catacombs of San Sebastiano—,” the instruction abruptly ends. Bond touches his earpiece wondering if they just got cut off. When Q resumes, his voice is strained and breathless, “Get on the bike. Ciampino Battista Airport is a straight route from where you are.”
Bond can't help but be concerned, “Q, are you alright?”
“I’m… fine.” -Says the lying sod- Bond knows Q’s in pain, but now is not the time to quibble about it.
Partially hidden under a plastic cover is the electric ‘motorbike’ Q promised. A high-performance electric two-wheeler with a spoke-less back wheel, straight out of a sci-fi novel. The Predators attach themselves to the sides of the bike where the batteries are, self-charging whilst 007 puts on the sophisticated helmet.
It turns on automatically. He suddenly has a wraparound Heads Up Display. The visor cycles through several modes to settle on an augmented reality night vision. The bike’s underseat compartment pops open to reveal a holster and a gun waiting for him, as well as several clips of ammunition.
Bond really, really cant help himself this time, “Oh Q darling, you spoil me.” He shrugs on the holster.
“How are you feeling 007?” Q asks, ignoring the use of endearment.
“Impressed and slightly aroused?” he deliberately misunderstands the question, but he’s not lying.
“That is unfortunate,” Q deadpans. “There is a plane waiting for you at the airport. But before that, Sciarra is at his domicile, Villa di Fiorano just outside of the airport, 10km from you. You have orders to terminate him. If you can find it within your willpower to curb your excitement, are you ready to get to work?”
“Send me the directions,” The bike switches on, completely silent - the only indication is a single LED light on the otherwise bare instrument panel glowing to life. Instead, his HUD adjusts, overlaying the bike’s status to one side.
The acceleration is insane. A lesser man might have fallen off the bike; only his reflexes save him. Bond streaks down the ancient road at an imprudent speed. Without any lights to give him away, he’s navigating through a combination of night vision, supplemented by predictive augmented reality generated from the multitude of sensors on the bike.
He only makes it just a short distance before Sciarra’s men on Ducati’s intercept him wholly by accident. They were initially surprised to see him cross their path at the intersection but recover quickly enough to give chase.
007 leads them down the dark sparsely lit and uneven cobblestone street at dangerous speeds, dodging potholes and parked cars. The sensors on his e-bike give him a significant advantage. His line of sight is artificially enhanced, and he can identify hazards before he actually sees them. Sciarra’s men don’t have this and it’s not long before one of them hits a deep gauge the road at full tilt and flies off the road.
The resounding crash is immensely satisfying. But it causes the others to renew the vigour of the chase.
“Lose them at the next sharp left.”
007 whips into the corner, perilously close to spinning out, but the gyroscopic stabilisers do their job and he shoots out of the bend courtesy of the instant torque from the electric motors. -Oh, fuck yesss!-
His assailants unwisely mimic his move and predictably one of them spins out, careening into the buildings lining the street. Another one down, one biker left. 007 leads this one down Via dei Matelli - nothing more than a dirt and gravel back road. The powerful rear wheels of his super e-bike kick up a spray of dust and pebbles, making visibility even more difficult for his assailant.
This one is particularly tenacious, Bond will give him that. At the end of the dirt road, is a barricade - past which is the main road. Bond can see it only because the sensors tell him it’s there. Perfect.
Just at the right moment, he flashes the variable LED rear lights to maximum illumination. The bright light reflecting off dust and gravel creates a blinding disorienting cloud in the dark night. He cuts the light immediately after and slips past the side of the barricade. His assailant doesn’t see it until it’s too late and clotheslines into the barricade at full speed, flipping over and flying into the trees.
After that, 007 makes his way back onto Via Appia Antic and continues on unharassed.
Rome - Villa Fiorano
It’s quiet at the villa. So quiet that the clinking of the Predators metallic spider legs against the marble floor seem too loud. Bond turns to regard them, a finger against his lips. Surprisingly they understand, hunkering down as if contrite, moderating the force of their footfalls. He really should stop associating their mechanical movements with ‘behaviour’ even as uncanny as it is - it’s like going into a fight with weaponised mechanical spider versions of Q’s cats.
Flanked by both Predators, 007 makes his way through the central arched entrance to the back of the villa where the pool is. Sciarra is waiting, his figure silhouetted by the light from the pool.
“Welcome to Villa Fiorano Mr Bond,” He takes a sip from his glass. In the other hand is a gun.
“My apologies that Lucia is not here to bid you a warm welcome. I’m afraid she is no longer among us,” Sciarra sneers. Without any prompting he continues, “My Lucia, her guilt could not bear it - she drowned herself in pills and fell asleep in the bath. But she went peacefully.” Hand over his heart.
Ah, so Sciarra found out about their tryst in Geneva and Donna Lucia paid for it with her life.
“Are you here to claim anything else of mine?” He seethes, right thumb unconsciously worrying against his right ring finger at the missing $PECTRE ring 007 stole off him a few weeks ago.
“If you put it that way… Yes,” 007 steps out from under the arched doorway into the moonlight - making his suitably dramatic entrance. On either side of the archway, Sciarra’s men move to level their guns at him - but before they manage it, both Predators leap out of the cover of the shadows to tackle them.
007 ducks the shot from Sciarra, tucking and rolling to the side. As soon as he uncurls, he takes aim and shoots. Sciarra staggers back, shot in the leg. He takes one step too far and falls into the pool.
More henchmen arrive, their loud roaring engines announcing their presence.
Predator 1 rounds the side of the villa to make its way to the front. Predator 2 lurks in the shadow of the main hallway. As the henchmen funnel into the arched entrance, the Predators jump out, tackling the front and last men, trapping them. The sight of the leaping spiderbot strikes a primal fear in even the most seasoned thug and they fire indiscriminately, possibly shooting each other in the process. 007 helps the process along by picking them off one by one from his position.
Meanwhile, Sciarra’s managed to pull himself partway out of the pool, just as his remaining henchmen come running out into the garden shooting after the spiderbot with extreme prejudice. One of them manages to hit the bot, hobbling it. A volley of shots later and Predator 2 bites the dust, but not before making a last tumble leap backwards into the pool right next to Sciarra, breached high capacity batteries and ultra capacitors discharging current into the pool. As the carapace fills with water, the lithium-ion batteries react vigorously, throwing up intense orange flames on the surface.
Sciarra still partially in the water, tenses violently from the electrical shock, throwing him back into the pool - right into the flames. The sight is grotesque, his skin bubbling and charring from the extreme heat instantly. Sciarra unconscious, doesn’t even struggle as he roasts to death in his own pool. His henchmen are paralysed, not knowing what to do.
Bond finishes them off with two well place shots. Before he leaves, he fishes out the dead predator bot; not wanting to leave evidence of their tech lying around for others to find out.
“Target neutralised.” he reports satisfied, even if he wasn’t the one to pull the final trigger.
“Excellent, see you in a bit 007,” comes the tired reply.
Rome - Ciampano Battista Airport
As promised, the private plane is waiting for him. Eve meets him at customs with is papers. They breeze through, the officers don’t bat an eyelid at his dust covered shabby attire - they’re ferried to the plane already on the tarmac. Onboard, Nurse Maria quickly checks him out, he’s not even that injured. This is the best VIP treatment he’s had in ages, he could get used to this he thinks as he scarfs down a sandwich Eve handed him. Wait a minute…
“He’s not here is he?” Bond unbuckles his seatbelt as soon as they are airborne and nearly barrels over Maria to get to the private room in the back of the plane. She stands her ground. “Shower first! You have graveyard all over you,” she admonishes crossly.
-Fair point-. He scrubs the catacomb dust off his skin and changes into clean clothes in record time.
Q is half asleep in the bed, drugged up to his eyeballs on morphine that he requested as soon as 007’s rescue and subsequent mission was over. Q’s laptop and headset is on the desk nearby. He’s thinner and paler than usual.
Struck with guilt, he turns to regard Eve, “He should be in a hospital.”
“He insisted. This was meant as a medical repatriation flight, but he threatened to change all our email passwords if we didn’t let him run Ops,” Eve explains. She leaves them alone after that, sliding the door shut behind her.
James settles in next to Q, running the back of his forefinger over a pale cheekbone. Q stirs but doesn’t wake for the next half hour.
Q dreams, he’s vaguely aware that James is with him - safe. The pleasant nuzzling in his hair calms and lulls him into a deeper sleep.
But the sweet dreams don’t last. The plane dips and that awful sensation he attaches with more unpleasant memories send his brain to recalling recent events. The feeling of being safe with James dissolves.
He’s back in the confusion of the conference room immediately after the flashbang, being hauled away against his will; then he’s in the van, pinned down and helpless as they strip away his outer clothing. Then its Alistair using him; his mind for his goals and his body for his desires. Finally, it’s James, bloody-minded and self-sacrificing, walking away from him, ruining his plans. He loathes all of it, the loss of agency and free will, of not being able to fight back, of not being in control.
Well, he’s certainly had enough of it. In his dream, he fights back, but his limbs refuse to cooperate - sleep paralysis hampering him. He fights and claws his way to surface, by the time he jolts awake, he’s in full blown panic - drenched in cold sweat and panting heavily.
James is next to him, wide-eyed and concern patently obvious, “Q? Wake up!”
He nods, gulping down air. He reaches out for James noticing then that James already has his hand around his wrist. Restraining him from hurting himself while he flails blindly because of the nightmare.
Q melts into him as soon as James pulls him into his embrace - careful not to pull at his stitches. They’re propped up on the headboard, Q sitting in between James’ legs, using the other man as a backrest.
Q sobs uncontrollably even as James tightens his arms around him. He’s frustrated, scared, angry and relieved all at once. All the emotions roiling in one big storm. It’s embarrassing this loss of control - but sod it, he deserves this cry after all that’s he’s been through in the last two weeks. He just wants to feel in control of his life again.
He hadn’t told James about the sexual assault, and even as angry as he is at him for spoiling his plans, Q needs the comfort only he can provide. “James... about… Alistair...” he blurts out the incident between sobs and gulps for air, quaking with the recollection, “…I had to… he gave me… no choice--“
“Shh… I know. I know…” the older man rocks and soothes him. James curls tighter around Q. Creating a cocoon around him on the outside as if that would protect him from his pain on the inside. “We’ll see that he gets what he deserves,” he says thickly, tearing up himself. He’s never seen Q so broken and vulnerable.
Q cries himself to exhaustion, until the morphine wears off and the physical pain returns. Bond buzzes nurse Maria. “Do you want another shot of morphine?” he asks as he lowers Q carefully into bed. Q looks awful; pale, clammy and tear stained.
He nods weakly - morphine sounds perfect right about now. “I don’t feel so good. Why is it so cold?”
Bond and Maria exchange a look.
Hong Kong - Castle Peak Bay
Onboard the superyacht World is Not Enough, Alistair looks out over the Gold Coast Marina in Hong Kong’s rich and famous playground. The luxury superyacht, a globe cruiser, one of the fastest in the world is frustratingly anchored in the marina. His eyes trace the line of the cables that run from the clubhouse to his yacht like a debilitating umbilical. The drone of the makeshift cooling system rattles the otherwise supposedly serene interior.
He had no choice but to set up the newborn $PECTRE AI here. This was not in his plans, but the staged lockout of the smart contracts had his investors (irate heads of crime and terrorist syndicates) angsty. He’d only just managed to convince them that it was a minor glitch that was being taken care of. He needed to find a workaround to Q’s hack soon.
He’d already done the quickest patch: Spoofing the Oracle API that Q had set up to present the Smart Blood data that the Smart Contracts needed to fulfil the ‘terms’. In this, Q’s smart contract hack is tricked into requesting status from the false Oracle that is under $PECTRE’s control. A portion of the newly generated smart contracts no longer depend on Q’s Oracle but on the false one. But this is a temporary patch and Alistair knows it. Once MI6 finds out, they could easily alter the hack to anther Oracle and the workaround would be broken. Also, older contracts and a significant portion of the newer ones still fall under Q’s hack.
To truly free $PECTRE from Q’s hack, he needs to attack the Shadow AI head on - either remove it or fool it entirely so that it no longer has control over $PECTRE’s network. Alistair has to weigh his options carefully - MI6 had him exposed as a traitor since that night 007 showed up in Korea. Returning to England was not an option. Here in Hong Kong where the British still had some measure of influence was not ideal either. He’d probably have to return to Korea to shelter under his half brother’s influential family. But even they had limits to their power. If he made too much of a nuisance of himself by antagonising the UK government into declaring him a national security threat, the Koreans will likely hand him over.
He has to lay low for a while. Attacking the Shadow AI head on would bring the wrath of all the intelligence services of the UK government. It would be declared an act of terrorism and a sure way of attracting even more attention than he needs at the moment.
So he is left with only one option; to fool the Shadow AI with his own shadow network - creating a false second, deeper layer $PECTRE network. The hope is that it would be enough to fool Q’s Shadow AI into attacking the decoy network instead. Turning the tables on MI6. Oh yes… he’ll get them back for stealing Benji from him.
After days of trying, Alistair finally manages this, but only for brief periods at a time. Some of the new contracts are free from the hack altogether. But his $PECTRE AI is not powerful enough to maintain the decoy network for long. His makeshift system is already overheating every few hours with the effort and he is shackled to the marinas’ powerlines. His hundred million dollar state of the art yacht might as well be a floating pontoon.
In its current form, it is not a viable solution. The chips will melt eventually at this rate. He needs more computing power to spread the load. He needs a stable base of operations for this, which he does not have at the moment.
Well… if he can’t own the GPUs, what if he ‘borrows’ computing power? Alistair smiles at his own reflection in the glass.
London - SIS Building
Back in London, Q spends a week in ICU fighting off septicaemia - thankfully caught early because nurse Maria was already wary of his lowered immune system (courtesy of the Prednisone that Alistair was slipping him) and had him sent to hospital as soon as they landed. Hopefully, it would not have lasting effects.
After that, Dr Chen keeps him for another week in observation inside HQ’s medbay just in case. Bond prowls the halls. At least here, he’s allowed to visit anytime he wants - which is all the time. And the cats are allowed in for their daily cuddle, which helps Q cope. By the end of the week, he’s nearly himself again.
“Yuck! This is tasteless,” Q throws a tantrum, shoving the tray of hospital food away. Boiled chicken breast with steamed carrots and broccoli.
James puts his hands on his hips. He’s about ready to shove food down Q’s throat if the younger man continues complaining. Q had always been whip thin, but the ordeal had him losing more weight than he could afford.
“Can’t I have some pho or ginseng chicken soup? Or at least a dollop of butter in this?”
“Eat your lunch and I’ll bring you either one of those for supper,” James sighs. At least Q’s appetite is back even if he is picky about it.
“Fine… Oh, and bring me my laptop. Dr Chen won’t let me use her computer,” Q rolls his eyes it like it was the most ridiculous thing.
James sighs, petting the back of Q’s head - he did say he would grovel for the next decade.
Upstairs in the Ops Room, Mark is on his 5th cup of coffee. He’s alone in the darkened room, watching the screens intently, one leg bouncing restlessly.
Whatever was attacking them earlier had slowed over the week, which isn’t necessarily good news. This comes at the same time that traffic to the Oracle API slackened, which is odd. Either $PECTRE has reduced its transactions or something has happened and the system is no longer requesting verification from the Oracle. If it is the latter, it means Alistair has found a workaround and they need to adapt quickly.
Mark had done what he could, creating another Oracle and diverted the AI to this new one when hacking the Smart Contracts. But something isn’t right. The hacks register as successful. However, the traffic to the Oracle does not match up - the number of Smart Contracts requesting verification is lower than expected.
Has something gone wrong; or is the AI wasting resources hacking empty contracts? A decoy? Worryingly it would mean that their grip on $PECTRE’s network is weakening. At this rate, they will miss their window to shut them down soon.
To be continued....